Sarah Berkman: Herbalist, Birth Doula, Earth Mother (my claim, not hers), Aromatherapist and Owner of Gather. Sarah wears may hats (and thrifted dresses); she grew up in New England and after a brief stay on the left coast, she has nestled back in Rhode Island. Her goal (one among many) is to integrate traditional medicine into our daily lives. In an era where over the counter medicine is overused and our health care system is barely there, Sarah tells me that many useful remedies can be found in our spice cabinets or backyards.
This is not the first time that I have interviewed Sarah, and I am sure that it won’t be my last. When I opened this column up for nominations multiple people suggested that Sarah would be the perfect candidate.
Every experience I have had with Sarah, and at Gather, is one of mysticism and magic. A couple of months ago, I reached out to Sarah to schedule a private consultation because I had a few questions and concerns regarding my own health and wellness; she greeted me with a cup of tea and listened to my woes. While I didn’t physically feel better off the bat, she put my mind at ease and helped me discover a lot about myself that I may not have otherwise seen without her guidance. Her presence is a pretty powerful thing, which is why I call her an Earth Mother (Gaia, if you will). When I sat down with her this past week I almost forgot that my reason for being there was to conduct an interview.
Q: How do you feel about being nominated?
A: “I am honored, thank you.”
I was curious to ask her how Newport has evolved since she had spent time living and studying in California. Typically, people associate New England with snobbery and tightness, I wanted to see how she felt about that (but I didn’t). Instead, I asked something much more general.
Q: Do you think Newport has changed since you left?
A: “Yes, most definitely. I think there is a huge difference in attitude. I think people are more open and more willing to connect in a real way. I definitely feel like holistically it is growing and evolving. I am pretty in love with the community, for sure.”
I told Sarah about my theory that Newport is coming into its own spiritual Gilded Age, so to speak.
“There are people bringing in a diversity of healing arts along with all the yoga that has been going on here, and it feels good.”
Q: Does it feel anything like California?
A: “It does in a way, it definitely does, although I like it [here] better.”
Q: How long have you been back in town?
A: “Since, December of 2015.”
I think at this point I started choking on my own air supply.
Q: And you’ve created all this in a year?
A: “Mhmm, I opened in May.”
Q: How did that happen?
A: “I just didn’t stop building my vision. I didn’t stop creating or writing or drawing or talking to people. I was a one track mind for a while, just creating my vision of what I wanted here and it happened.”
I took a brief pause to talk about how impressed I am with the local population of female entrepreneurs and business owners.
“I have Kyla (another Boss Lady) to thank a bit. I taught an herb class at Long Time Sun and there was a big turn out. That’s when I thought that I wanted to open an herb shop and I asked her after the class how it is been having started her own business. I asked her, ‘how did you do this and how did you make this happen? and she told me to, just jump into it, just do it, just make it happen.”
Q: What is your definition of ‘herbalism’?
A: “It’s forming relationships with plants and using them as allies in supporting our health and healing our bodies can heal themselves, and the herbs are really great at supporting that process, and they have a lot to teach us in so many different ways.”
Q: What is your favorite tea or herb, assuming you have one?
A: Oh, yes! It changes often, it changes probably every week, Today, I think my favorite herb … [looks at the herb wall] well … I just found some Osha root that I harvested last year in the Sierra Nevadas, it is endangered, I only harvested this much out of a whole feild.”
Sarah pulled out, what looked like a mandrake root (Harry Potter style), of a brown paper bag. They smell like sage-y pungent goodness, and she explained it’s origin while breaking off a piece for each of us to chew on.
“I hiked and hiked [in the Sierra’s] to get to it, and I thought that I lost it [in Rhode Island] but I found it! This is really great for lungs and congestive coughing, I am going to make a tincture out of it. I guess, right now I have been drinking a lot of Mother Wart.”
Q: How can you tell if a herb is potentially poisonous?
A: “You can taste the volatile oils. When you’re tasting plants in the wild to see what their good for it is called organoleptic, which is how you figure out how the herb may support us by tasting and smelling it. Usually if something is very bitter, it may be dangerous to consume. When you are working with the plans a lot you are able to look at a plant and almost be able to feel what it’s feeling, you can tell if a plant wants to be picked. I know that sounds insane but you can tell if a plant can help you by looking at it.”
Q: That doesn’t sound insane, what type of plants are we talking about here?
A: “Mullein leaves are broad and they look like lungs, they have little hairs like the papillae on the hairs of our lungs. Peppermint is cooling, you can tell that it may help you cool down in the summer months or help you breathe. So, you know looking at a plant, does it look like a friendly plant? Does it look like a strong plant? Does it taste pleasant? That is how humans figure out what plants are good for, but you should always have a plant identification book.”
I tell Sarah that, “I am taking you with me when the apocalypse happens.”
Q: I have to ask, do you only drink teas?
Q: Is there a certain perceived notion that people carry around with you since you are a Herbalist? Are you often stereotyped (even if passively)?
A: “Often, all the time, people hesitate to tell me their perceived bad habits because since I am an herbalist that I live this very pure plant only lifestyle. I believe in moderation and eating what feels good in your body, I had a Native American teacher tell me once:
“Eat what you like and bless it.”
Drink water, get a good amount of sleep, get exercise, and have a good cup of coffee once in a while, I love coffee and I don’t think it’s bad for you. I am definitely conscious of the products that I used and the food I put into my body, I try to stick to only organic food when possible but I am not hyper vigilant…
…I also eat ice cram in front of the TV sometimes and that’s ok too.”
She’s human! Yes!
Q: Are there many men working in your field?
A: “I have never met a male doula or a male midwife, although I have heard of one, but yes there are many men herbalists. It seems like a female dominated industry, but many of my favorite teachers are men.”
Q: Are there any places locally to forage?
A: “Yes, but I won’t tell you where they are.”
Q: What is your advice for foraging?
A: ”You should never take anything in the wild if there is not a lot of it. You have to be ok with going home with an empty basket, you should never harvest anywhere unless it is in abundance. Even if you really, really, want some of that plant you just have to walk away. I have a handout over there for rules of wild crafting, there are six rules.
Q: Out of the six, what is the most important rule to you?
A: “That’s hard … I guess, say ‘thank you’, share, harvest in abundance, don’t take more than you need, don’t waste it. It is good, too, if you’re harvesting a root which is going to kill that whole plant to plant a seed or leave a cutting of that plant so that it an regrow. Often times when you’re harvesting you can help the plant flourish, with nettles, if you trim or take the top five inches you’re actually helping it.”
Q: How many people ask if you are going to harvest and grow weed as part of your herb shop?
A: “So many, almost every day, at least once a week, people come in asking if we are a dispensary.”
Q: Are there any herbs you shouldn’t mix? Any bad reactions?
A: “There are some herbs that you wouldn’t really want to mix together, that’s kind of a big discussion, short answer: sometimes, yes.”
Q: What are your plans for Gather, or herbalism in general?
A: “I am working on creating a community supported free clinic. So I am slowly collecting donations in order to buy herbs and bottles for dispensing remedies to people who typically wouldn’t be able to necessarily afford them and provide free consultations. Homeless and underserved, in our current healthcare system I believe we are all underserved. Natural medicine tends to me not very accessible to everyone it usually a last resort to a lot of people so making it more accessible to everyone is something I am very passionate about.”
Q: Are natural remedies really that accessible?
A: “Usually there is a quick easy remedy in your spice cabinet; thyme is incredible. It’s great for sore throats and coughs and most people have that at home. You’d make an infusion, just pour hot water over it and cover it let it steep for 10 minutes, strain it out and drink it. You can infuse dried thyme in a little bit of raw honey and that’s a great way to soothe yourself if you have a cough or to soothe your throat, if you are sick you can put it in apple cider vinegar as well. It’s empowering in that way, to know how to support yourself and your family with herbs, to take healthcare into your own hands a little bit.
Q: Upcoming events?
A: “None are posted yet. In October I will be putting up a schedule of herb classes: self-care, body systems, medicine making, game night … the turn out has been amazing, this place fills up. Facebook and Instagram have been a huge aid.
Q: Any last words? That sounded cryptic.
A: “I do have another herbalists on my team now! Daryl Gardella, who is originally from Connecticut but lives here. She works a few nights a week now, people can come in if they want a different perspective on herbs. I am trying to get more herbalists here.
Sarah has given our community a nudge in the right direction of self-care and healing, and this is only the beginning. Follow her page on Facebook for updates and goings on, as well as her Instagram account. You’re never too busy to enjoy a steeping cup of health.